In the house on her parent’s farm, Georgia O’Keefe was born November 15, 1887 near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. She was not taken outside during the cold, dark, and long upper Midwestern winter. Spring did arrive and with it, verdancy, warmth, and the color of the sun.
Georgia was carried out and “placed on a handmade patchwork quilt spread on the new grass and propped up by pillows. Those very first moments of seeing in the brilliant sunlight became indelibly etched in her memory: She precisely remembered the quilt’s patterns of flowers on black and tiny red stars…*
I remembered that while reading a review of a new book: The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us about Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life by Alison Gopnik**. O’Keefe was exceptional (duh!) in that virtually no memories form in most babies’ minds until about age 5.
Their brains are different. The part (prefrontal lobe) that filters out distractions and thus enables ‘internally driven attention’ is not yet fully formed. “What rouses them is what is in front of their eyes, the first burst of information about cause and effect in the physical world”.
Open to all stimuli and unable to shut any out, they are in a sense more conscious than are adults. Gopnik compares “the lantern consciousness of childhood to the spotlight consciousness of ordinary adult attention”. Very young brains require such copious amounts of neurotransmitters to process this inundation that they require relatively higher doses of anesthesia before surgery.
As I know I’ve mentioned many times in this space, at birth the human brain has more connections among its 100 billion neurons as there are stars in the universe. Some strengthen and some wither in a process labeled neural Darwinism by Gerald Edelman***. Those connections in receipt of stimuli flourish and those that don’t disappear.
So in a very real sense what one does not see, hear, feel, etc as a baby one never will. If, for some reason there is a patch on an eye over a crucial brief period neural connections will degenerate rendering it irreversibly blind. Buckminster Fuller had poor vision, but a grand capacity for spatial visualization that he believed arose from early manipulation of blocks and other solid shapes.
Similarly, “although empathy does seem to be innate… the flourishing of empathy is not guaranteed”. Which brings me to Swiss child psychologist Alice Miller. In her book For Your Own Good, Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence we read her take on the provenance of Hitler’s depravity. She wrote “I have no doubt that behind every crime a personal tragedy lies hidden… every persecutor was once a victim”.
Ten years or so before Edelman developed his theory of neuronal selection Miller described the structure of the constellated narrative. And it had nothing to do with innate drives. Hitler’s youth was itself unmitigated horror. He was beaten, humiliated, and demeaned by his parents while being commanded to love and respect those who might treat him thus.
“My pedagogy is hard. What is weak must be hammered away…I want the young to be violent and cruel… They must be able to bear pain… There must be nothing weak or gentle about them… The free, splendid beast of prey must once again flash from their eyes…” Adolf Hitler.
Most of Miller’s work addresses life after age five and actually gives us hope. She holds that if a youth has an opportunity for just one positive connection, whatever might have characterized those first years, a good life is possible. “The human soul is virtually indestructible, and its ability to rise from the ashes remains as long as the body draws breath.”Portrait of an Artist by Laurie Lisle **What Babies Know and We Don’t by Michael Greenberg; New York Review of Books March 11, 2010 ***Edelman won the Medicine Nobel in 1972 for his description of the immune system. His theory of neuronal development remarkably, but I guess logically, parallels his earlier work. ****Painting on top is “Spring by Georgia O’Keefe from the Art Institute in Chicago. *****Photo is of a young Adolf Hitler ******Painting at bottom is “Sky Above Clouds IV by Georgia O’Keefe from the Art Institute in Chicago.